Dust Bowl 2012? Not so fast

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As the Midwest drought of 2012 intensifies, parched fields and mounting numbers of heat-stressed livestock are fueling the rumors of a developing disaster that could rival the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Not so fast, drought experts and meteorologists suggest.

The 2012 drought has already caused a significant number of headaches for farmers and consumers, including lost crop yields and raising feed prices, which will likely translate into a jump in meat and dairy product prices, Discovery News reports.  Despite this, current drought conditions are still far better than those experienced during Dust Bowl.

“In terms of percent area of country affected by drought (as measured by the Palmer Drought Index), the 1930's Dust Bowl decade is the worst drought on record by spatial area," says Richard Heim, a meteorologist and drought expert with NOAA's National Climactic Data Center.  

Modern estimates suggest that 100 million acres of farmland were lost during that period, forcing farmers to abandon their farms, businesses to close and entire towns collapse.  

According to the Weather Channel, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s wasn’t caused solely by drought. Instead, it was a perfect storm of a natural disaster caused by a combination of weather, environmental and educational factors that dominated the 1930s, primarily 1934 and 1936.

"In July of 1934, 80 percent of the country was affected by drought," Heim told a Weather Channel reporter. "At its peak the drought went from the West Coast, to the Great Plains, to the Midwest and the East Coast."

To compare, the USDA’s latest Agricultural Weather and Drought Update showed that currently 64 percent of the continental U.S. is covered by moderate to severe drought conditions, though drought is impacting 88 percent of the corn grown in the country.  

While this drought is quickly becoming one of the most severe and widespread droughts in the last century, modern farming practices and the anticipated length of this drought makes it fall short of surpassing the Dust Bowl.

“For most of the central and northern United States, this is a drought that has only developed over the past 90 days, so at this point it’s just a single year of brief but intense drought,” John Nielsen-Gammon, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station told Discovery News. “Most farmers can deal with one year of drought.”

While a drought – or any weather event – cannot be stopped by human force, a lot has been changed since the Dust Bowl:



Large percentage of Americans were farmers

Smaller percentage of farmers

Sustained drought over a large area of the country

Sustained drought not as widespread as the Dust Bowl

Farmers stripped the land of natural defenses, such as native grasses

Decades of replanting of native grasses, trees

Unsustainable farming practices

New farming practices, such as crop rotation and cover crops

The Climate Prediction Center is projecting the hot and dry weather pattern to condition for much of the central and eastern regions of the country over the next three months, but a few good rain storms could help alleviate concerns. However, time is of the essence.

“The good news is that this drought formed recently,” David Miskus, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center told Discovery News. “Since it’s still short-term, if we get into a wet spell, it could be improved pretty quickly.”

Miskus added that if it is going to rain, “it’s got to start here pretty quick.”

El Niño, which usually allows weak storm fronts to soak the Midway, isn’t developing as quickly as expected, though the weather pattern is still expected to form sometime in the third- or fourth- quarter of 2012. Read more here.

Speak out: Is this the worst drought you have experienced?

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justin time    
va  |  July, 20, 2012 at 10:04 PM

Funny no one post comments on a site wich sites the facts, like this one. Everyone is so eager to react to morons with keyboards, blogging "The sky is falling " or "the dust bowl is comming ". Why not use the internet to educate yourselves and not entertain yourselves with silly 2012 apocoliptic nonsense.

wa  |  July, 21, 2012 at 08:19 AM

Great article...I was around in the late 30's and actually remember the dust bowl. One huge difference was the DUST storms during the 30's, giving the name to that period of farming problems. Over planting and soil stripping caused as much damage as the lack of rain. Today is bad, and will likely get a bit worse, before the rains come again...is it as bad? Not yet, but only the next two months will tell if this will pass or exceed the 1930's time frame. DS

Pottsboro Texas  |  July, 21, 2012 at 08:12 AM

The media is hyping ANYTHING negative to do with the climate ALL in an attempt to continue to sell "Global Warming". Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas just broke and 11 year drought last fall. I lived through it. I saw it, I felt it, I recorded it including a temperature of a 115 degrees! The media must think we're short on memory. Do they think the people in Dallas forgot how many days they had above 100 degrees last year? My own acreage got so dry and cracked I thought I could hear people speaking in Chinese when I put my ear to the edge of one of the dry crack chasms.

Bastrop, TX  |  July, 22, 2012 at 06:53 AM

I grew up in West Texas. In 1951 my mother wet my youngest sibling's baby blankets and hung them over the windows to keep the dust and sand out during sand storms. You could see the Northers sweep down from the north with the sand billowing on the horizon as it advanced. Talk to people there now and they don't know what you're talking about. I now live just about a mile west of the Bastrop Fires that hit us early last September. Two years of drought had left the area a tender box - indeed most of the state of Texas was a disaster area because of fires. This year in our area farmers have numerous round bales in their fields and everything is very green. The only constant with climate is that it changes. With any event that happens - tornado, hurricane, fires, etc - it's always the "worst on record" except it seems they don't look very far into the records or they don't report that the records only go back to maybe 1930 or 1949 or... In Tucson in the late 1990s the headline in the newspaper was that summers would be cooler - and they were! At least the official temperature. They moved the thermometer from town to the airport where it was about 10 degrees cooler on average! None of this is ever reported to the general public though.

earnest crist    
Oklahoma  |  July, 23, 2012 at 09:32 AM

I agree that it's not as bad as the dust bowl--but the one thing you didn't touch on enough in my opinion is the real reason that it's not--the work SCS (now NRCS) and other folks in conservation have done to help producers keep the dust at bay. I can tell you now if it wasn't for conservation tillage and the conversion of highly erodible land back to grass (both under CRP and working lands programs where it can still be grazed and hayed) my part of the world would have been blowing VERY BAD last year. In fact, a lot of folks seem to have forgotten the lessons of the 30's (and the 50's) and turned their fields to dust last year. If we had not gotten the rains we did in October and Novemeber, we would have been in real trouble. Time will tell if this is a long term dry cycle--I am a little unusual in that I believe in climate change and if this is a dry cycle, that will only make it worse. Our sub-moisture has never recovered from last year even though we had the moisture we needed this winter to grow a good wheat crop. Bottom line is, we need to think before we tear up a lot of this ground--maybe use more no-till and minum till in the southern plains and be midful of what could be happening. We also need to keep conservation programs going.

Dwain Holmes    
TX  |  July, 23, 2012 at 10:16 AM

One other thing is the seed companies are constantly coming out with more drought tolerant varieties.I like You believe in climate change and believe Man has very little or nothing to do with it!Geological history proves the earth has been much warmer and cooler then today!The same with CO2 and other green house gases. the levels have been much higher as well as lower!

SD  |  July, 23, 2012 at 03:15 PM

Though not born until 1940, the stories of family about living through those hard times in western SD remain strong in my memories. Some differences: today we have rural water from Oahe Dam reservoir for our cattle and homes, even our yards and gardens; electricity for power to heat, cool homes, and cook and preserve food; homes and shops generaly are better insulated and better built, thus less dust can penetrate. The wet cloth over windows was very common here, both to feel a bit cooler, and to help cut dust penetration into homes, tho in my family, the whole house 'leaked' air, so covering windows was pretty futile. Another, less comforting difference: today we have more debt, more net worth, and just plain handle more money. Whether we get to KEEP much more of it or not, is a whole other question!

Melvin & Doris Lohr    
Prairie du Sac, Wi. 53578  |  July, 25, 2012 at 08:50 AM

It compares to 1988 and 1976 since we"ve been farming, beginning in 1962. Six to eight week spans between rains which finally came from the east. We've received 2.5 inches in the last 48 hrs. which maybe will save us from disaster.

ms  |  July, 25, 2012 at 09:57 AM

First, I feel as though they should interview someone from agriculture not just an atmospheric scientist. This drought even though a "brief but intense drought" has far reaching effects. I cannot speak on behalf of the corn growers, but as for the dairy and beef farmers(and I imagine any livestock farmers) it is affecting our feed prices. This is only making it harder for smaller "family" farms such as ours to stay in business. Stating, "Most farmers can deal with one year of drought", is a very vague statement. Yes, they possibly could if that was the only factor. There are many other factors including fuel, fertilizer, and other inputs increasing in cost and fluctuating (and many times decreasing) commodity prices for our products. This may not compare to the Dust Bowl, but it still has far reaching implications! I pray for rain for these and all farmers, hoping it's not too much, too little, too late.

WI  |  July, 25, 2012 at 01:16 PM

You are exactly right, earnest. Anyone interested in the Dust Bowl should read "The Worst Hard Time." I don't remember the author, but it is easy to read and full of researched astonstonishing facts.You can't feel sorry for yourself after reading that book.

justin time    
va beach va  |  July, 27, 2012 at 08:18 PM

Lol we don't need rain, we need Al Gore?

August, 08, 2012 at 03:57 PM

In the throes of a historic drought in the United States, a government agency said on Wednesday that it broke a heat record in July that had stood since the devastating Dust Bowl summer of 1936.

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